LESSON #29: STEP OUTSIDE THE UNIVERSITY BOX
Truth be told, I was kind of a weird little kid. Whereas most of my peers growing up in Mattoon (the self-proclaimed Baseball Capital of the World) wanted to be either a firefighter or a Major League baseball player during their money-making years, up until about the age of eleven, I was so legitimately taken with Pranay Patel’s mother that I wanted to work at K-Mart when I grew up. Blue Light specials? The K-Mart Restaurant? Awesome! Upon reaching the sixth grade, however, I quickly shifted gears when I decided that K-Mart was not for me. Instead, I declared that I would one day be the President of the United States. Now, I realize that this seems like a complete 180-degree turn, but, if you think about it, the two might not be all that different. I mean, both K-Mart and the United States government seem to be failing economically right now. But, I digress.
The point of my youthful weirdness that I would like to emphasize in today’s lesson is the fact that throughout my childhood, I was haunted by the fear that the entire world was secretly just an elaborate game that had been laid out by some mastermind to fuck with me. I feared that every person I encountered was just a paid actor who was playing some part in my life, and my own future was to be determined not by any force of my own volition, but rather by some contrivance of an omniscient Eye in the Sky. I told you – I was a weird little kid – but at least I wasn’t the only person who ever felt that way. You see, years later, this nightmare would be more fully reinforced by watching The Truman Show– a movie where Jim Carrey’s entire existence is really just a television program for a much larger world. And although I’ve outgrown nearly all of my youthful paranoia now that I’ve reached adulthood, I still sometimes wonder whether or not it is strictly coincidence that one of my best friends is named Christhilf – a name eerily similar to that of Ed Harris’s character Christof in the movie.
Still, even if it’s true, I’ve come to accept that I’m at least getting to see a lot of the world in my box. If it’s a question like the one delivered to Neo by Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix, I guess I’d probably go ahead and take the blue pill. But that’s because my little bubble isn’t nearly so small as the one encapsulating Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, who’s got about twenty square miles to play with. Unfortunately, that’s more than I can say for a lot of America’s college students. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that there are undergraduates who have spent 4 full years on the campus of Saint Louis University without ever breaking the perimeter of a tiny bubble that extends two blocks beyond campus in every direction, with the exception of one long, skinny stretch of Highway 40 that leads to the Target near Brentwood Boulevard. And thus, we now come to the body of today’s piece of Dr. Wizard’s Advice: students, sometimes it’s a really good idea to step outside the University Box. It’s good for you, it’s good for the community, and it’s good for the world – so strap on your Nikes and just do it.
Now, if you go to school in a small town, I realize that townies can be a little scary. You’ve heard crazy stories about how they kidnap college kids when they step out into local bars and sell their kidneys on the black market. But this is (usually) not the case. In fact, you should know that most townies are equally misinformed about you. Why is this? Well, in part, this is because the only time they see you is when you get drunk and decide to go to the townie bar on Friday night. They assume that your peeing in the corner pocket of the pool table is normal collegiate behavior, and thus generalize this sort of lunacy onto the whole population of your school. What you need to do to bridge the gap between your school and your host village is to establish a dialogue (where not all of your words are slurred), so that they can be proud of the University in their midst. This small rural community has opened up its arms to you every fall; its citizens clean your classrooms and cook your food – and they’d simply love it if you expressed a little gratitude every now and then. As an added bonus, if you can become more fully immersed in the local surroundings, you’re likely to discover all sorts of hidden gems that don’t tailor exclusively to the people who call the town home for only nine months a year. And this is doubly true if you go to school in a more metropolitan center. For example, Saint Louis is a city with roughly 3 million people, all of whom need to be occasionally entertained. As difficult as you might find this to believe, not all of the city’s entertainment venues are within a two-block radius of your campus. I’d recommend that you get out and explore. But this is not the only advantage you can garner by periodically stepping outside of the University Box. In fact, I can think of at least two more that are extremely important to your long-term mental development, and both have to do with broadening your mental horizons.
One of the greatest lies we tell ourselves as professors is that we are responsible for exposing you, the college students of America, to a diverse array of opinions and ideas – but this isn’t really true. The truth is that we’re not nearly so diverse as we would like you to believe. Just look at me; I’m liberal as shit, and in most Humanities Divisions at state-run colleges I would be well towards the conservative side of the continuum of professors. If you hang around us long enough, you’ll eventually come to question how anybody can possibly not be a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But there are plenty of Americans who think that we are just crazy-people, spouting off about Atheism and Marxism and all kinds of other morally corrupt philosophies. In the American Presidential Election that we’ll be holding on Tuesday, more than 50 million people will vote for John McCain – which is something most professors are completely incapable of wrapping their heads around. Your job is to balance the information we give you with doses of real America by talking to people who aren’t like us – and to find out why there are Republicans, because they can’t all be crazy. Don’t let us completely brainwash you.
By the same token, we’ll spend the next four years teaching you about the theoretical problems of American poverty, all while keeping you safely insulated in a well-cushioned, $30,000 a year cloud. Now I’m not saying that if you go to DePaul University in Chicago you should start taking nightly walks through Cabrini Green – that’s just not safe – but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for you to occasionally venture out into the city and participate in some real charity work where you can learn about real poverty. Your education is a privilege, but like any privilege, it can only be fully appreciated if you understand what life is like for those without the opportunity. Learning to value what you’ve been given will make you a better, more motivated student, and will fill you with a sense of responsibility to capitalize on the gift of Higher Learning in your future. Again, this is only possible if you step outside the University Box.
So don’t stay in the bubble. Life is not The Truman Show. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to run over to K-Mart to pick up the necessary black construction paper I’ll need so that I can go to tonight’s Halloween Party as the 3-Hole Punch version of Jim.
LESSON #28: BORROW LESS MONEY
You know, being safely ensconced in the midst of America’s never-ending War on Terror, it seems as if I had somehow completely forgotten about our concurrent War on Drugs. I guess I kind of just assumed that Nancy Reagan’s platform issue had disappeared like so many other great relics of the 1980s and 1990s – including Crystal Clear Pepsi, Max Headroom, and the guy who played Balki on Perfect Strangers. But, lo and behold, that all changed this morning when I was awakened by the sounds of police sirens as the FDA made a massive drug raid on one of the three-story colonial houses two doors down from my condo. The whole situation just made me shake my head, mutter incoherent phrases, and eventually settle on the appropriate response of “WTF, mates?”
To make matters stranger, over the course of the morning, it became clear that the government had all kinds of cool toys for sniffing out contraband. So, evidently, we’re still pumping plenty of dollars into the War on Drugs. Just check out this magic 8-ball machine! It’s good to know that, at the very least, the FDA has developed a sense of irony over the last twenty years – and after seeing this thing in action, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s got a special button you can push that instantly blares Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack” at an ear-exploding decibel level. That feature alone would be enough to make me give up my black market business and “just say no.” Still, I wish a little more of that money went into educating America’s undergraduates on that other oh-so-addictive drug – the Student Loan – because for a lot of collegians, the habit of borrowing money is even harder to break.
Now, like most drugs, there’s a way to appropriately use the Student Loan, and a way to abuse it. To make this point a little clearer, let’s explore an analogy. If, in some freak flag-football accident, you break your leg, the doctor is likely to prescribe for you a certain amount of Vicodin. You should take this as directed; it’s necessary to keep your pain below a tolerable threshold. If, however, you purchase a bottle of Vicodin from the 34-year-old waiter who lives in your apartment complex, and proceed to go Robo-Trippin’ on the weekends by chasing three Vicodin with a bottle of Robitussin, then you are abusing the miracle of modern medicine. The same principle applies to the Student Loan. When the concept was introduced as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the idea was to offer students the money they would need for the necessities of a college education. What are these necessities? Tuition, Room, Board, and Books. Over the years, however, as the average American teenager’s sense of entitlement has grown, the presumed necessities of the college education have expanded to include a string of hundred-dollar bar tabs and a monthly allotment of purchases from the J. Crew Catalog. If you are borrowing money for your college education, you must be very careful lest you fall into this trap.
You see, what should be obvious, but is instead somehow misunderstood or ignored, is the fact that the student loan is one of the few loans in America that absolutely must be paid back. Unlike your mortgage, your car loan, or your credit cards, there is no way to declare bankruptcy or default on a student loan; the only way you can be absolved of your obligation is by dying, which seems like it would be a silly way to get out of your monthly payments. Every penny you borrow must be returned, with years of accrued interest, and thus the decision to borrow money to buy a sweater from J. Crew is like the arbitrary decision made by Dennis and Sweet Dee in Season 2 of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to become crack-heads. It just doesn’t make any sense, and once you start, it’s really hard to stop. Using Student Loan money as an undergraduate to buy Natty Light and Box Wine ensures that you will still be drinking Natty Light and Box Wine when you’re 40 years old – and Lesson #18 has already made it clear that this is not a good idea. So kids, just say no.
And this now brings me to the Mecca of the Student Loan system – graduate school. One of the most difficult financial truths of the twenty-first century is that most high-profile jobs require some sort of graduate education, but taking on a massive amount of student debt is roughly akin to Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles. In exchange for unlimited knowledge, you must agree to be a slave to the system for at least the first ten years following graduation – if you are not prudent. Take, for example, law school. I seldom run into a lawyer who has attended a private law school without encumbering him or herself with upwards of $100,000 in student loans. If you choose this route, this means two things: #1) upon your graduation, you will own the equivalent of a three-bedroom Midwestern house that doesn’t have a single piece of hardwood-flooring or any running water; and #2) you must practice corporate law for at least the next ten years in order to make monthly payments in excess of $1500 on your non-default-able debt. Now, considering the second aspect of this scenario, I give you this piece of advice. Before entering law school you must be absolutely certain that you are capable of doing well enough while there to secure corporate employment in a very tight job-market, and you must be cognizant of the fact that $1500 a month after taxes equates to nearly $30,000 a year in annual pre-tax salary. If your desire is to practice non-profit environmental law, then you’d better go to the cheapest decent law school you can find – otherwise, you’re fucked. Because unless you’ve got a full ride, it is impossible to both attend Duke and practice law somewhere other than a big firm.
So, the bottom line of today’s lesson is simple: Borrow Less Money. You may not be able to have everything you want right now if you follow this principle, but you’ll have a lot more financial flexibility in the future. And I can’t think of a single instance where flexibility is anything other than awesome.